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Bangladesh: Halt Plans To Return Rohingya To Myanmar, Continue To Support Justice Initiatives

U.N. to review Bangladesh’s human rights record on November 13

(COX’S BAZAR, November 9, 2023)—The Government of Bangladesh is meeting its obligations to ensure international justice for Rohingya genocide survivors, but it continues to violate Rohingya refugees’ rights, including by engaging the illegal and illegitimate Myanmar junta to return Rohingya to Rakhine State, said Fortify Rights in a new report published today. On November 13, the U.N. Human Rights Council will examine Bangladesh’s human rights record since 2018 as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

The new Fortify Rights “shadow report” intends to support the UPR process. It focuses specifically on Bangladesh’s record regarding its treatment of refugees in Bangladesh from 2018 to 2023 and includes 15 recommendations to the government to improve refugee protection.

“We applaud Bangladesh’s ongoing and important efforts to ensure the perpetrators of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar are held accountable,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “At the same time, we’re seeing an almost daily erosion of the rights of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The refugee camps are riddled with unmitigated militant violence, while needless restrictions on freedom of movement and other basic rights continue to put lives at risk.”

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The new report, Universal Periodic Review: Bangladesh’s Record on Refugee Rights, 2018-2023, documents how Rohingya militants have killed and abducted refugees with impunity, how Bangladesh authorities have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and extorted Rohingya, and how Bangladesh continues to violate Rohingya rights to freedom of movement. The report also focuses on Bangladesh’s efforts to support justice for the Rohingya people and on its contradictory engagement with the Myanmar junta to return refugees to their indigenous Rakhine State. The report describes the repatriation plans with the junta as “premature and dangerous” and causing “unnecessary psychological distress among Rohingya refugees.”

The report cites how, between 2018 and 2021, the Bangladesh government sent at least 830,000 names of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar, including personal biometric information of refugees for repatriation eligibility assessments. Many refugees did not provide informed consent for this data transfer. Most recently, in March 2023, the Government of Bangladesh and the Myanmar military junta launched a “bilateral pilot project” on Rohingya refugee returns to Myanmar as part of a deal reportedly brokered by China. Junta officials were in Bangladesh last week to discuss the plan.

The right of refugees to return to their places of origin is enshrined in international laws and standards and is considered customary international law binding on all states. However, refugee returns must be voluntary, safe, and dignified, none of which are possible for Rohingya under the current situation in Myanmar, said Fortify Rights.

In 2020, 92.5 percent of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh told Fortify Rights they would return to Myanmar only with full citizenship rights, compensation for losses (85.9 percent), protection (e.g., a U.N. security force) (75.4 percent), and freedom (e.g., of movement, to attend school, etc.) (71.7 percent).

The military junta is not the Government of Myanmar under international laws and standards, and its claims to legitimacy are fraudulent, said Fortify Rights. “The junta is, therefore, an inappropriate interlocutor or partner on matters relating to Rohingya repatriation to Rakhine State,” the report says. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional bloc to which Myanmar belongs, continues to refuse to invite representatives of the Myanmar junta to its high-level meetings and functions, adding to questions about why Bangladesh regards the junta as a suitable partner on refugee returns.

“The junta wants to strengthen its defense in the genocide trial in The Hague with the optics of refugee returns, and evidently, China wants to help them do so,” said Matthew Smith. “No one is fooled. The junta is a criminal regime that deserves to be held accountable for its crimes.”

In 2019, The Gambia brought a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice in The Hague for the Rohingya genocide.

The report released today is based primarily on Fortify Rights’s research and monitoring in Bangladesh between 2018 and 2023.

There are nearly one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, most of whom survived Myanmar military-led genocidal attacks in 2016 and 2017.

In its national report submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council, dated September 1, 2023, the Bangladesh government highlighted its efforts to improve the lives of the almost one million Rohingya refugees they host, including more than 32,000 whom the government relocated to Bhasan Char, a previously uninhabited and isolated island in the Bay of Bengal.

According to evidence collected by Fortify Rights, refugees on the island face widespread human rights violations, including severe restrictions on freedom of movement. In 2021 and 2022, evidence collected by Fortify Rights indicated that some relocations to the island were coerced and involuntary.

This year, Fortify Rights also documented how Bangladesh police officers from the Armed Police Battalion (APBn)—a specialized combat unit of the Bangladesh police force—arbitrarily detained, tortured, and extorted Rohingya refugees with impunity. APBn officers beat Rohingya refugees with batons and metal sticks. They choked and used other torture methods against them to extort payments, sometimes amounting to the equivalent of thousands of U.S. dollars.

Fortify Rights also documented how Rohingya militants in the refugee camps killed, threatened, and harassed Rohingya human rights defenders with impunity. A rising spate of killings in the camps began with the assassination of prominent Rohingya human rights defender Mohib Ullah in 2021. In the two years since Mohib Ullah’s killing, Fortify Rights has spoken to dozens of other Rohingya human rights defenders, aid workers, and community leaders forced into hiding due to death threats, abductions, and attacks at the hands of refugee camp-based militants.

Fortify Rights’s shadow report provides 15 recommendations for Bangladesh to fulfill its obligations under international law to protect refugee rights, including ensuring the right to freedom of movement of Rohingya refugees, facilitating accountability for abuses committed by APBn officials, and increasing protective spaces for Rohingya refugees at threat from non-state actors.

This year’s UPR is Bangladesh’s fourth review under the UPR process, which occurs approximately every four years. During Bangladesh’s last UPR, it received but failed to accept or implement several recommendations relevant to refugees, including ratifying the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and ensuring access to justice in Bangladesh.

“We cannot forget the strain the refugee crisis is causing on Rohingya, Bangladesh, and the wider region,” said Matthew Smith. “To solve this situation sustainably, there must be more respect for the rights of Rohingya refugees, not less.”

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